The Art of Losing

By Nancy Klingener

One of the satisfactions of sports is that there’s a decision at the end. Someone wins and someone loses. (Yes, even sports like soccer where individual games can end in a tie eventually pick a winner of a title or a tournament.)

The winner gets the glory, the trophy, the trip to Disney World. But we are also fascinated with the “art of losing” – the title of a famous poem by Key West’s own Elizabeth Bishop, and of a Friday afternoon panel at this year’s Literary Seminar.

Moderator Kate Tuttle started by asking the writers for their favorite “agony of defeat” moments (calling back to that iconic opening to ABC’s Wide World of Sports showing the ski jumper spinning out at the bottom of the ramp).

For New Yorker staff writer Ben McGrath it was Bill Buckner’s flubbed fielding in the 1986 World Series, the moment that confirmed him as a member of the Red Sox tribe — followers of the team that was doomed to play at the highest level – then have the trophy snatched away at the last possible moment.

He was 9, but “that was sort of the beginning of my career as a writer,” he said – he recounted the incident over and over for his family.

For Leanne Shapton, the author of “Swimming Studies,” it was seeing a swimmer (“he’s sort of like Canada’s McEnroe”) lose a race at the Commonwealth Games and smash a chair — in front of Queen Elizabeth.

“I kind of like it when athletes lose it a little bit,” she said — giving us a glimpse of the human behind the carefully crafted hero persona. “You get to see the curtain drop a bit.”

And for Analise Chen, author of “So Many Olympic Exertions,” it was watching the men’s luge races on a dangerous track at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

“It was a very haunted event. Someone had just died [on the track] a few days before,” Chen said. And, she said, it became a “perfect analogue” for how she felt about life, hurtling along a dangerous course, clutching onto the sled. “That was the moment I started writing my book.”

The writers discussed how successful athletes handle the end of their careers — winners transitioning into losers — how self-doubt can influence athletic performance, why some win by cheating, lying or doping.

And they examined the similarities between athletes and writers.

“Artists and athletes are so similar,” Chen said. “Both are in the pursuit of the impossible, which is perfection.”

Nancy Klingener is on the Board of Directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. Her day job is covering the Keys for WLRN, South Florida’s public radio station.

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